Several weeks ago, I joined an online discussion about the key skills of an effective ScrumMaster. Everybody actively shared their experiences and thoughts. But I strongly felt that we were talking about the definition of a good ScrumMaster, not an effective one, which was the original topic.
This made me recall an experience I had last year. I'd joined a new project that was outsourced, and I worked with some external on-site guys. The project had been going for about six months when I joined one of the three Scrum teams involved. Soon I started hearing complaints voiced within my team and the others. The most popular grievances were: Scrum is nothing but another fancy process with a different command-and-control exterior. We could live better without those annoying spreadsheets and meetings. Don't call this Scrum.
Frankly, I didn't feel good in that environment of low morale and weak responsibility for the team's goal, and I decided to figure out what the problem was. After about two months of careful observation, I noticed that although management shared some of the responsibility, the main problem was in the team itself. The team was young and some members were new to Scrum. But this is normal in the initial phase for teams that decide to adopt Scrum. And the team had a good ScrumMaster, which is important.
What I mean by a good ScrumMaster is someone who knows Scrum well: understands the do's and don'ts and is familiar with related artifacts and tools. He or she knows how to run a daily Scrum, a planning/review/retrospective meeting, and how to take advantages of related tools and so on.
So what was wrong with this situation? Well, after five years of being with Scrum and three years of being a CSM, I would say that I've seen some good ScrumMasters who are trying to make sure that teams are using Scrum. They do their jobs carefully, according to Scrum rules, and they help their teammates get used to the Scrum process. This is great for a team at the beginning of adopting Scrum. But teams soon will hit the ceiling in terms of taking real advantage of Scrum and seeing its benefits.
Let me go back to the team I was on last year. We did indeed reach that ceiling after several months. We were still at the adaptation phase, where everything was carried out in its standard form. It was hard to go a step further. The team was told to adopt Scrum and people had an expectation that Scrum would improve software quality, improve their productivity, and give them more freedom by enabling self-organization. After getting used to this new way of working, they wanted more. Their belief and patience lessened little by little as they awaited those results, and meanwhile doubts and complaints were growing. I would describe the time that I joined the team this way: team's belief < 50% and doubts > 50% (belief + doubts = 100%). People didn't see the rewards, thus they lost their faith and the team was stuck.
Why? Because it was only doing Scrum.
Simply put: only good is not enough; effective is the goal. To be a good ScrumMaster is the first step, and to be effective should be the responsibility and even the duty for a ScrumMaster who really wants to take advantage of this method. An effective ScrumMaster, besides making Scrum run smoothly for the team, can also help the team go further in finding and growing its internal responsibility and productivity, and toward figuring out the most comfortable environment and way of working for itself. Staying at the surface and doing perfectly according to existing guidelines is not and should not be the ultimate goal of adopting Scrum. We need keep going further. We need to focus on the team itself.
So what is a good ScrumMaster, and how does one become an effective ScrumMaster? Below are points that I see as important for a good ScrumMaster:
- Knows exactly what Scrum is and is not
- Knows exactly what a ScrumMaster does and does not do
- Has a strong sense of responsibility and high self-esteem
- Has good teamwork skills
In a word, a good ScrumMaster is a nice person with fundamental Scrum knowledge.
However, in order to become an effective ScrumMaster, a person needs further qualities:
- A high level of determination and persistence
- This is a critical factor to success, since it's really hard to push the mind-set change for some teammates, never mind some entire organizations, especially at the transitional phase when many teams fail.
- The ScrumMaster must be patient enough to help make the changes happen one by one, since it takes time and effort to see the positive trend appear.
- An ability to root the ideal Scrum mode in one's mind, while performing it realistically within one's own organization
- This is crucial to success, because no two companies are exactly the same.
- It requires not selling an advanced way of working too aggressively, because more haste makes less speed.
- Tailoring to a company's specific makeup is necesary at the beginning.
- The ScrumMaster must carry out a long-term plan step by step, till the team itself can find its own effective way of working within the Scrum framework and mind-set.
- A willingness to challenge and be challenged by others
- Asking for help from higher up, in particular, is useful but often difficult.
- The ScrumMaster must be able to hold his or her faith — in the process, in him or herself, and in both the team and the organization — steady.
- A desire to continuously improve oneself
- This is the key to influencing the team to look for the most effective way of working for itself, which is the ultimate goal.
Of course, we may want to add to that list. But everything we put on it comes down to one thing: being Scrum instead of simply doing Scrum. The honest truth is that it takes time and effort to transform our mind-set from doing Scrum to being Scrum. But that is what makes an effective ScrumMaster.